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06 Sep 03:04

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Five: Social Media

by John Scalzi

Was there actually even social media in 1998? Oh, my, yes. There was. And it acted in pretty much the same way as it does now, in all the good and bad ways.

The players were different, of course. In 1998, in place of Twitter and Facebook you had USENET and America Online (as two examples). Blogs were just starting off, and the word “blog” itself hadn’t really gained currency, so they were mostly known as “online diaries” or “online journals,” but .plan files and other such similar analogues were around, doing the same sort of thing. There was IRC rather than Slack. And so on. Everything that’s prominent today had its analogue and inspiration in something else.

And even in 1998, these weren’t new ideas — AOL was the upstart muscling in on CompuServe’s and GEnie’s territory, don’t you know, and the “Web” was still in the process of being bolted onto (and over) the existing Internet, with its gopher holes and veronica searches and what have you. And don’t forget BBS’s, which you had to dial into directly! With your 300 baud modem! Uphill and in the snow! 1998 was already iterative, my friends.

What’s certainly different now is scale. AOL at its height had something like 34 million subscribers; Facebook has more than a billion users, and people are worried about Twitter because it only has 300 million users. And with scale comes scale-related problems. There were always trolls, as an example, but there is a difference between having to deal with a single persistent troll on alt.society.generation-x, and dealing with literally hundreds of trolls on Twitter bound and determined to wreck you. Social media, or more accurately the people who run and administer it, have done a very poor job accounting for the scaling up of its influence and reach, which is one reason we have the beef-witted president we do and why the current iteration of social media feel like they’ve reached a bend in the curve, where the toxicity and bullshit have eroded their position.

For a lot of people it’s not a lot of fun being on social media right now, and that’s a problem for the social media companies, who rely on ads. Here in 2018, it really does feel like we’re ready and waiting on the next iteration of social media, the one that makes it enjoyable again for most of us to hang out with our friends online.

Was it fun in 1998? I think it was, but in regard to blogs in particular, it was more that it was exciting. There was a sense of being on a frontier of sorts — a place not yet colonized and so a place of invention, or reinvention, if you wanted that instead. We were doing things that were never done before! (In fact they had been done before, many times, in many other media, but they were never done on the Web, in html, so.) There was status conferred just for being out there in the wild, with your online journal the only signpost around for figurative miles. The blogosphere was still (barely) small enough in 1998 that you could read everyone and keep up with their doings. The full blossoming and influence of the blogosphere was still most of a decade away at least, but it seemed like something could happen there.

And it kind of did. I don’t need to recount the glory days of blogs right now, but I will say that it took until about 2008 or 2009 for me to be better known as a science fiction writer than as a blogger, and of course my first two Hugo awards were for writing originally posted here, so even as my primary notability began to drift over, the blog writing and online presence was (and still is) a significant component of it. Even now there are people who read my blog or follow me on Twitter who are vaguely surprised when I mention I have books out. Oh you do that, too? That’s a nice side gig. Yes. Yes it is.

In terms of casual foot traffic, Whatever peaked in 2012; front page traffic here has dropped by about half since then. I can drive 2012 levels of interest in a post by pointing to it on Twitter, and the blog has roughly 50,000 followers via WordPress, email and RSS (yes, still) who have what I write here show up for them somewhere else. But no matter how it’s sliced, the “blogosphere” has become something of a ghost town. Many blog writers have simply moved over to Facebook or Twitter as their main online presence because that’s where their friends and/or fans are, which is entirely fair. Some people like to blame Google for the decline, because it killed its popular RSS reader, which was one way people kept up with their favorite blogs. I think that’s a factor, but honestly not much that much of a factor. I think it’s more simply because maintaining blogs is a lot of work and other types of social media are easier, both in maintaining a presence and in getting/growing an audience.

Which of course is a bit ironic, here in 2018, where the famous and non-famous alike are noping out of social media because it’s such a drag now, and random chucklefucks can show up en masse to be a pain in your ass. If only you kept your blog up! People would know where to find you! Well, no, not exactly — there’s no guarantee that anyone will find your blog again if they’re stuck in the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram social media gravity well. We’re all waiting for the next things, not necessarily the old things to come back.

I should note that here in 2018 it’s not all doom and gloom on social media front, at least not for me. I am having fun. The reason for that, not entirely surprisingly, is because I filter the shit out of things. Here on Whatever, of course, you’re all familiar with how that works. On my private Facebook account, I limit “friends” to people I know in real life, make sure my posts only go out to them (and not to “friends of friends,” as “friends of friends” are inevitably the drunken racist uncles of the online Thanksgiving known as Facebook), and I don’t talk politics at all — it’s cats and kids and career, and I don’t comment on political posts that other people post, either. As a result my Facebook presence is almost placid. It’s nice to have some place like that online.

On Twitter, I filter out accounts with default icons, and accounts that don’t have verified emails and otherwise employ the Scamperbeasts rule to people who come bother me. The Scamperbeasts currently have 14k followers, so that cuts substantially the number of annoying people I feel obliged to engage with. And truth to tell I don’t feel obliged to engage with people I think who are trolls regardless of their follower count; I employ a “one strike” rule pretty much for everyone these days. Twitter also lets it users mute specific conversations now, which I find to be super-helpful when a particular tweet of mine gets picked up by piles of jerks. There’s also a thing which I consider to be something of a “nuclear” option that I haven’t used yet, but might if things become especially contentious and/or I get incredibly busy, which is the option to see tweets only from the people I actually follow. If I had massively more followers, or was a woman of some note in the world, I would have probably already engaged this option.

Fortunately me, it’s not come to that, and the strategies I use are more than enough to handle the occasional jerk eruptions that come my way. And again, these strategies aren’t that different than the ones that have always been a part of being online. On the USENET in 1998 and earlier, we had “killfiles” — lists of people whose posts would simply not show up in our newsreaders. When we consigned someone to a killfile, they went *plonk*.

Well, the plonk never, ever went away, nor should it have. Online, it’s only ever been the way to deal with others — the option not to hear them. Yes, I know there is a whole cadre of people who like to maintain that muting, blocking and otherwise filtering is somehow censoring them. Those kind of people are the same kind of people they were in 1998: Generally, self-absorbed, toxic assholes.

Social media can be a lovely place, but it’s work for it to be that. If you don’t have the tools (or alternately, the tools are not obvious or easy to use), it can be pretty awful, and that awfulness scales upward the more people there are online, and the more people who know who you are online. I knew people in 1998 who threw up their hands and walked away for the social media of the time because it was all too much, so here in 2018 I certainly can’t blame anyone who does the same. I was willing to deal with it back then, and here and now I don’t think I’m going away either. But it would be nice if the next iteration of social media finally had baked into its interface the idea that not everyone is nice to everyone else, and not everyone means well to everyone else. Just like in real life.

05 Sep 06:13

Edmonton Notes for September 2, 2018

by Mack Male

Happy long weekend! Here are my weekly Edmonton notes:

Headlines

Where Will You Go?
Where Will You Go? photo by Isabell Hubert

Upcoming Events

2018 Cariwest Parade
Shirtless banjo guy, photo by Robert

Thanks for reading! Want to support my blog? Buy me a coffee!

05 Sep 06:11

Kitten in a Trashcan + Announcing Daily Digest

by John Scalzi

First, the kitten in the trashcan, because you always lead with the “A” material:

Why is the kitten in the trashcan? IT KNOWS WHY.

(And also, because kittens are kitten-y, and Smudge is more kitten-y than most, and jumping heedlessly into trashcans is just a thing kittens do.)

Second, for the non-holiday weekdays of September, I’m going to trying something that’s actually old here at Whatever. When I started the site, I would write a single daily “digest”-style column, covering (more or less) three to five topics and dedicating (more or less) two or three paragraphs to each, separated by asterisk breaks. It was a convenient way to organize things because I could cover a number of topics, but devote only the amount of space to them I thought was interesting and relevant.

I’m going to give this format another try through this month, for a couple of reasons. One, because at the 20th anniversary of Whatever, I think it’ll be fun to go a little retro for September, and two, because I think a digest-like column might actually fit my mind space these days more than discrete, longer pieces. Because of paid work and other factors, there are some subjects (like politics, but not only politics) that I’ve been avoiding here recently, and this format could give me an easier entree into them than needing to compose a longer piece on the topics.

These pieces will go alongside the Whatever 20/20 pieces and the several Big Idea pieces that will be up this month, so if all goes to plan there should be a fair amount of writing here in the month. And after September — well, let’s see how things go. If the digest format works for me, I’ll continue with it, alongside other things.

The point is, for me, I like writing here, and want to find ways to keep it interesting for me, and for you, while still keeping up all the other writing commitments that I have these days. Let’s see how this idea does for us all, shall we?

02 Sep 18:59

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day One: Cats

by John Scalzi

Over the course of 20 years, I’ve had seven cats, roughly grouped into three generations.

The first generation of cats was a single cat: Rex, who I acquired in 1991 from my sister Heather. Heather and her children came to live with me for about a year when she was getting a divorce from her then-husband and needed a place to live; Rex, a kitten, came along as part of that package. Rex was not stupid and apparently realized that I was the one paying for his kibble, and also, my room in the apartment was entirely toddler-free, so he glommed onto me. When Heather and her children departed, he stayed.

By 1998, when for the purposes of this exercise our story begins, Rex had gotten quite comfortable living with me and Krissy, and had also gotten rather chunky — something like 30 pounds. When he got a urinary tract infection our vet ordered him on a low-fat, low-ash diet with no more than half a cup of kibble a day. That lasted until Rex tried to kill me in the night by climbing up on my bed and suffocating me with his furry bulk as a protest for the diet cat food. I took the hint, fed him what he liked, and expected him to expire in a year or two. Possibly out of spite, he stuck around through 2005.

By that time, two members of the second generation of cats, Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee, had joined the menagerie at the Scalzi Compound in Ohio. Lopsided Cat we acquired when he walked into the yard while Krissy and three-year-old Athena were tending the garden; he walked over to Athena and when she knelt down to pet him he hopped on her back, and that was pretty much that. He had been someone else’s cat (he had been neutered) but I suppose either he had been abandoned or he had decided to trade up. Ghlaghghee (whose name was pronounced “fluffy”) came to us when a neighbor knocked on the door, said “here’s that kitten your wife wanted,” presented me with a small handful of fluff, and then walked away. In fact Krissy had not said she’d wanted a kitten, but inasmuch as I had taken receipt of the thing, it was too late for takebacks.

The second generation of cats got its final member when Zeus showed up at our garage door on the coldest night of 2008, mewling piteously for food and warmth. We’re suckers and we took him in. Zeus, Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee formed a fairly stable trio for the better part of the decade, with well-defined roles: Lopsided Cat was the Cat’s Cat, sort of the platonic ideal of a cat, who kept the house largely vermin free (we’re surrounded on three sides by agricultural fields, and without cats the field critters eventually head indoors). Ghlaghghee was a pretty princess who ruled the house with an iron paw. Zeus was the adolescent comedy relief. Ghlaghghee became world-famous when I taped bacon to her; she was written up in the New York Times and the Washington Post among other places. The other two cats did not seem to mind her fame.

Of the second generation of cats, Ghlaghghee was the first to leave us and did not meet any of the third and current generation, and Lopsided Cat passed away within the same week of us acquiring the first two members of that new generation, Sugar and Spice, sister kittens who we famously dubbed The Scamperbeasts. Zeus, now the sole surviving member of the second generation, rather grumpily took on the role of the elder cat, first schooling the Scamperbeasts and now lately acting like an exasperated grandfather to Smudge, the (we think!) final member of the third generation of Scalzi cats, a kitten who very like Zeus came to us out of a nearby field looking to be rescued, accurately figuring we were too soft-hearted not to take him in.

It means we currently have four cats at the Scalzi Compound, which to my mind is one more than we absolutely need. Three seems to me to be the ideal number. But then I look at Zeus, now the elder cat, and I realize that all-too-sooner than later that “problem” will take care of itself. Maybe in the meantime I should enjoy these furry folks while we have them.

Which is of course the problem with cats, and pets in general: They don’t last. If you’re lucky you get a decade and a half with them, give or take a couple of years. Then they pass along and you have a cat-shaped hole in your heart for a little while. New kittens and cats can help that heal, but you still miss the ones who are gone.

As it happens, Rex and Ghlaghghee and Lopsided Cat are still here with us, in their way. Rex’s cremated remains are in a lovely urn that a Whatever reader made for him, and the other two are buried beneath the oak tree in the back yard, which is appropriate inasmuch as the spent nearly their whole lives in sight of that tree. They’re home. I find that I miss these cats of mine as much as (and in some cases more than) humans I’ve known in my life. They’re all people. And these people lived with me and were part of my family.

Here in 2018, it’s interesting watching the four cats we have configure themselves into their own sort of family unit. Zeus is the cranky elder, Sugar is the standoffish queen, Spice has taken up the mantle of the great hunter, and Smudge… well, he’s still figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up, and in the meantime he runs about with fearless and some would suggest heedless kitten energy, running head first into the other cats whether they want that or not. It’s fun to watch them tolerate him, until they don’t. He doesn’t seem to mind.

The configurations of the cats at the Scalzi Compound over the years, and the dynamic of the generations, have helped to give shape to their time with us, and ours with them. Over the course of these 20 years, we’ve never not had cats, but the cats are not interchangeable. They’re all their own people and have their own personalities. I would never confuse Rex with Zeus, or Ghlaghghee for Spice. I miss the ones that are gone, and am glad for the ones that are here now. Even when one of them is, as Smudge is literally doing right now, attempting to dismantle the chair I’m sitting in with his teeth. It’s not going to work. But it’s fun to watch him try.

 

02 Sep 00:57

What You Should Be Watching: YouTube Edition: Binging With Babish

by athenascalzi

Hey, everyone! Welcome to another edition of “What You Should Be Watching”! And, yes, it’s another YouTube one because, hey, there’s a lot of good content on YouTube, and it’s free, unlike Netflix or whatever, so.

For this edition, I have chosen another cooking channel, mainly because I have only posted like one cooking related thing during my time here because I literally never cook, even though I love it. Aside from that, though, this channel is amazing and I’ve been watching it for a while now, and I think it is super awesome and worth sharing!

Basically, this dude makes specific food that has been shown in certain movies or TV shows, like Matilda’s chocolate cake, the Ultimeatum sandwich from Regular Show, the Michael Scott Pretzel from The Office, burgers from Bob’s Burgers, even a whole episode of foods from Harry Potter. Aside from those videos, he also has Basics With Babish where he teaches actual cooking skills and basics in the kitchen.

Even if you don’t like cooking that much, he’s very entertaining and it’s interesting to see him make things from famous shows and movies. Also, I think he has a nice voice. Check out a couple of my personal favorites:

He also has a cookbook out that you can buy here! Anyways, I hope you give this channel a chance, personally it’s one of my all-time favorites on YouTube. Have a great day!

01 Sep 16:57

The Other Cats

by John Scalzi

Spice and Smudge.

Someone asked me if the other cats are jealous of the attention that Smudge is getting as the new kitten. Well, in terms of the attention on the Internet, the answer is that I’m pretty sure they are not, inasmuch as none of our cats, no matter how clever they are as cats, understand the concept of online media to any great extent. In terms of us giving them attention, in point of fact we’ve been pretty scrupulous about making sure the older cats are not neglected for human attention versus Smudge. Kittens are kittens and need attention, of course. But we really like our other cats as well and don’t want them to feel neglected. So if you were worried about the disposition of the other cats regarding pettings and scritchings, never fear. They’re fine.

 

31 Aug 03:21

Now You're Thinking with Portals

by Yappy
So, finally, after a lot of work and testing, the Clan Lord account portal has been re-opened for business.

What completely blows my mind on this whole project is that a group of players contacted the GMs and totally offered to build this portal from the ground up for free.  And they wished to remain anonymous: no glory, nothing expected in return.  They were just passionate members of the Clan Lord community who wanted to keep the game alive and playable for a little while longer.

It's selfless actions of this kind that makes me fall in love with our little community all over again.
31 Aug 03:20

Tired of Dirty Dishes and ‘Hacker Houses,’ Millennials Revamp Communal Living

by Max Blau

SAN JOSE—One night in January 2016, Bryan Cannon was searching for an apartment in Silicon Valley, scrolling through an endless sea of Craigslist ads. He wanted a place he could afford with roommates he liked. That wasn’t a problem in his home state of Michigan, but next to impossible to find in one of America’s most competitive rental markets—where rents averaged a whopping $2,360 for a one-bedroom apartment, and where people have been known to pay to live in converted garages, tool sheds or outdoor tents. Eventually, the 26-year-old science researcher spied a listing for a bedroom in a peach-colored ranch near the headquarters of tech companies like Google and Yahoo. It almost seemed too good to be true: great location, relatively affordable price and a pool? There had to be a catch.

What Cannon had stumbled upon was actually a burgeoning trend in rental housing that had begun to shake up cities most popular with millennials. It’s called “co-living,” and it’s attempting to rewrite the exasperating and paycheck-crushing hassle of finding a decent place to live near the place where you work. The ad Cannon responded to had been placed by a startup called HubHaus, one of a number of “co-living” companies that have popped up in the last few years. Several hours after Cannon responded, HubHaus scheduled a showing. And when he drove out there, he was met at the door by one of HubHaus’ founders, Shruti Merchant.


As they walked through the house, Merchant pitched Cannon not just on a relatively affordable place, at $1,250 a month, but the chance to live with five roommates from diverse backgrounds who would eat dinners together, play board games and form a community in an all-too transient region where newcomers find it hard to break into social circles. Later that night, Merchant wrote to Cannon that 15 people had come out to look at the house. Two of them—one who worked for Google, and another employed by an electric motorcycle company—had already accepted offers to join “our community.” Do you want to be the third? she asked. Cannon loved the idea but was skeptical a startup could really cure the plight of urban-dwelling millennials.

The miniboom of companies like HubHaus signals that millennials are demanding new solutions for a rampant housing problem the public sector has mostly failed to deal with. Over the past five years, nearly a dozen U.S. companies have raised more than $130 million to sell the concept of co-living, the latest iteration of a millennial-focused economy that shares everything from car rides to workspace. Inspired by boarding houses and long-term hotels of generations past, these companies generally target the “underserved middle of the housing market,” the segment between traditional affordable housing programs like Section 8 and luxury apartment units, according to Brad Hargreaves, founder of the co-living company Common, which operates roughly two-dozen buildings in cities including New York, San Francisco and Chicago.


Skeptics of the model might wonder how co-living is different from old-fashioned roommates. But the companies are more than just landlords: They’re part cruise directors too, providing cleaning services and happy hour get-togethers, tastefully furnishing common areas and ensuring that housemates are decent people who won’t steal everyone’s food. On top of that, most co-living startups, HubHaus included, dispense with traditional rental agreements—a fixed-term lease for an individual unit—for one that provides “members” a small private room, and the flexibility to transfer from one property to the next—within cities and even across the country. All of this for less than renters in Silicon Valley have paid for a repurposed closet.


Over the past decade, as millennials have flocked to large U.S. cities, they have seen wages lag behind the rising costs of living. Faced with credit-sapping student debt, Americans born between the early-1980s and mid-’90s have waited longer to get married, buy homes or have children. More likely to rent—and devote a higher portion of their paychecks to rent—millennials are also more likely to be socially isolated than past generations. Even in the nearly 2 million-person San Jose area, where median household income exceeds $100,000 thanks to a humming job market, the dream of home ownership is increasingly elusive, with prices rising faster here than anywhere else in America. That’s left many employees of the world’s largest tech corporations—plus the teachers, firefighters, and police officers serving Silicon Valley—in a dilemma: Either make lengthy commutes or devote a disproportionate amount of their salaries to live near their jobs. Despite San Jose’s reputation for inclusivity (about 40 percent of residents are foreign born) and economic mobility (ranked best among U.S. cities), Mayor Sam Liccardo says the region’s affordable housing shortage has forced thousands to crash on couches, live in their cars, or stay on the streets. And while Silicon Valley has the tools and talent to mitigate the affordability crisis, the broader lack of political or corporate leadership on housing has threatened the region’s long-term ability to attract talent.


“We deserve the best and brightest,” Liccardo says. “But if we cease to become the place where people who have a passion or drive can make ideas happen, we’ll cease to be Silicon Valley.”

One of those people is Merchant, who has brought a bit of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit to solving an intractable urban problem. In Los Altos, 10 miles west of San Jose, the 24-year-old CEO sits in the corner of a crammed, 1,100-square-foot storefront, building her company in a classic startup uniform of plain gray T-shirt and open-toed sandals. Huddling over their laptops, her 15 employees spend their days signing leases on single-family homes, showing houses to prospective members, and addressing the needs of tenants. And they brainstorm ways to strengthen community from subsidizing monthly house dinners to organizing field trips to places like Alcatraz.

Merchant, whose company has more than 500 rent-paying members—TSA officers, Tesla engineers, chemists, schoolteachers and wedding planners among them—now operates nearly 100 Bay Area houses and recently expanded to Los Angeles. After raising $10 million this past spring, she is looking to launch in several East Coast cities, the next step toward an ambitious goal of having a presence in every major American city within a decade. If successful, Merchant believes HubHaus can change the way renters interact with their cities—just as Uber or AirBnb have done—in part by putting “home” back into shared housing.

“I hope people can feel like they can belong somewhere, and they can open up to people,” Merchant says. “I hope co-living brings people together. Everyone deserves community.”


***

Merchant, a high school student during the Great Recession, never saw home ownership as a major of part of her American Dream. Instead, she strove to be financially independent and to change the world, even if she didn’t know what exactly she wanted to change. A top student in a high school of overachievers, Merchant earned an academic scholarship to St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. She studied biology and worked as an emergency medical technician. But after completing her undergraduate degree in three years, she dropped out of the med school track and in May 2014 moved back home. That summer, she launched her first startup—making Google VR cardboard kits—in her parents’ garage.


“If you become a surgeon, you could impact maybe 100 or 200 hearts a year,” says Merchant. “If you start a business, you could impact potentially millions of people. And I’ve always been a risk-tolerant person.”

A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” once caught going 101 miles per hour on California’s I-280, Merchant stumbled upon the idea for HubHaus after moving into a “glorified closet” in a Silicon Valley “hacker house.” The owners of these single-family homes are notorious for packing a dozen or more people into every corner of a property—paying little mind to the social costs of people living so closely together. Merchant says her house was by no means the worst—with only nine or 10 people living there—but it left much to be desired. Picture perpetual lines outside the bathrooms, dishes piled up in the sink, takeout cartons overflowing from the fridge.

“They had set it up as like a price-bidding structure, so everybody would auction off the rooms,” Merchant says. “They didn’t care who was in the house, or who was moving in.”


Frustrated with the experience, Merchant felt there had to be a better way to foster community among roommates respectful of one another’s needs—and to do so without the hassle of the traditional online housing search. Inspired by the Silicon Valley playbook, she thought about launching a startup that in essence acted as a clearinghouse for working professionals looking to live with like-minded renters in relatively affordable units. First, though, she wanted to test the model on a smaller scale. She and another roommate found a seven-bedroom mansion in Cupertino, where Apple is based, and inquired about renting it. Then they posted a listing on Craigslist, informally vetting the people who responded to see if they were genuinely interested in creating a community rather than just putting a roof over their heads. All seven tenants signed the lease, sharing equal responsibility for the property. Merchant became one of the de facto property managers who helped furnish common areas and stocked bathrooms with toilet paper so her housemates could focus on building relationships. Most of her housemates were friendly and courteous. However, they had a problem with one, learning the hard way that they couldn’t expel that person since all the tenants had signed the lease.

Despite the early hiccups, Merchant remained convinced the concept was desperately needed in Silicon Valley. Soon, HubHaus was born.

From 2010 to 2016, new jobs in metro San Jose outpaced housing growth more than sevenfold. Meanwhile, as local officials failed to meet affordable housing goals over the past decade, rents increased by a third (from 2009 to 2015) while renter incomes fell nearly 3 percent. “So many people are coming here for good jobs, and people are looking for every which way to squeeze housing out of existing stock,” says Adrian Fine, a Palo Alto council member. While many of the cities that make up Silicon Valley are required by the state to draft affordable housing plans, they’re not required to develop those units, leaving the biggest projects to the likes of tech companies such as Facebook or Google. “We don’t have to build,” Fine says. “It’s a shell game.”


In early 2016, Merchant and her co-founder, Sloane Yu, invested nearly $50,000 in personal savings to get a tweaked version of HubHaus off the ground. They reached out to owners of vacant mansions to see if they would be interested in someone to manage their properties. Absentee owners often didn’t want to deal with the hassles of being a landlord so perfectly good housing sat empty, adding to the shortage of potential rental housing. Co-living offered a new option: HubHaus would become their tenant—making monthly payments to owners that in some cases covered the bulk of their mortgage payments. HubHaus, in turn, would sublease the space to its members.

Once owners became convinced of HubHaus’ potential, Merchant’s staffers often reconfigured the layout of their homes to increase capacity beyond what was originally designed for a single family. A reconfigured layout of a five-bedroom house—often done by carving a master bedroom into two using Lego-like bricks to form new, temporary walls—means six members can each get their own 172-square-foot room on average. HubHaus ordered furniture for the shared rooms in the houses; members furnished their own rooms.


“When we said, ‘We’re going to put professionals into these properties,’ the [owners] first pictured the scene from the Facebook movie, where you build the sling and knock the chimney down, or some type of frat party, something crazy,” says Patrick Beadle, HubHaus’ director of business development. “We’ve had to overcome that perception.”

***

A responsible and respectful bachelor in his mid-20s, Cannon was exactly the kind of member HubHaus was looking for. The Detroit-area native felt socially isolated upon moving to the Bay Area, in part because his first employer, a federal research contractor, largely hired middle-aged workers. He moved into a rundown $1,550-a-month apartment in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. He figured that pricey rent was the cost of finding a social circle. But then he started a new lab tech job at Stanford, more than 30 miles away, that paid less than $50,000 a year. His rent ate up more than a third of his salary and the long commute took its toll.

“I wanted more of a home feel,” Cannon says. “I wanted to know my roommates — and know they would clean their dishes. And I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was another white dude in a house of five or six white dudes.”


Cannon’s initial skepticism about HubHaus waned after he moved in February 2016. Halfway though unpacking, he and two new housemates struck up a long conversation about “Star Trek.” While the housemates hailed from countries like Iran and Italy and were just as diverse politically, a bond grew over shared meals and poolside chats. They argued over their favorite Kanye West records so much that when it came time to name their house—per HubHaus tradition—they dubbed it Casa de Yeezus.

HubHaus has tried to foster that sense of community between its houses as well as within them. There were happy hours where HubHaus picked up the first round. The members of other houses open their doors for board game nights, leading to intense matches of Settlers of Catan or Cards Against Humanity. Cannon found himself attending those events, including a BBQ hosted at the HubHaus where Merchant lived. Cannon felt that co-living helped him “go from not feeling comfortable with people to being in a community of people I enjoyed being around.”


For the heads of the co-living startups, the hope is this kind of community can grow so popular that people turn to them before mom-and-pop landlords.

“We’re like a crowbar opening the city for people,” says Jon Dishotsky, CEO of Starcity, one of the other co-living startups. “It’s hard to move to a new city and create new relationships. We have ‘Sunday suppers,’ ‘Wine-down Wednesdays,’ book clubs, poetry slams, bowling groups.”

Having built HubHaus without help from accelerator or incubator programs, Merchant solicited advice from other tech leaders including Geoff Donaker, former chief operating officer and current board member of Yelp; and Tom Currier, then the CEO of Campus, a Peter Thiel-backed co-living company. Among the things she learned from Campus, which has since shuttered, was the importance of building a product that capitalized on societal shifts toward millennials wanting more shared experiences. She also learned that the simple removal of “friction points”—making life as convenient as possible inside the houses—could increase the likelihood that roommates might bond faster.


“You naturally select people who are more appealing just to you,” Merchant says. “But the more diverse group you put together, as long as you remove all the obstacles along the way, it actually led to stronger house cultures.”


Today the average member is 27 and stays in HubHaus properties for at least a year. The current HubHaus model, though, makes it difficult to have many couples in homes due to the strain it places on resources shared among individuals. But Merchant hopes HubHaus will grow its availability for couples in the future.

Now that she is earning that magic median salary of $100,000, Merchant has eyed potential expansion into Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., followed by other larger American cities. And as HubHaus’ footprint grows, allowing for the painless transfer among properties in different places, Merchant thinks the company will allow for people to more easily find housing in Silicon Valley, where roughly half of its properties are currently located. Looking toward the future of co-living, Common’s Hargreaves believes the “millions” of Americans who currently share apartments or live with roommates could be potential members of these companies.

“Every new resident makes HubHaus more valuable to owners,” Mike Ghaffary, a partner at the Bay Area venture firm Social Capital, wrote after investing in Merchant’s idea. “And every new [house] makes HubHaus more valuable to residents as they take new jobs, move to new cities, or even just want to move locally a few towns over.”


Not everyone is convinced of co-living’s value. Lenny Siegel, the mayor of Mountain View, thinks the model is too niche to mitigate the region’s affordable housing crisis. While co-living might fulfill a small fraction of San Jose’s housing needs, he believes local officials need to stop dragging their feet—and start building housing.

“Building community—and knowing your roommate—offers a net plus,” San Jose council member Lan Diep says. “But to the extent that boosts the cost of rent, to $1,500 a month, for a room in a four-bedroom house, that might have a mortgage of $2,000 a month? Something feels wrong with that.”

Merchant believes co-living is a consequence, not a cause, of the housing crisis. That said, she acknowledges companies like HubHaus don’t typically strive to tackle affordability in the traditional sense—in the way Section 8 targets low-income residents. Her goal is to “make quality housing accessible to more people” that, results in pricing for rent, amenities and other perks being closer to “what you would get if you were to look at like an average room available for rent.”

“You’re saving a ton of money living in a HubHaus,” Merchant says. “But I think what’s more important than affordability is building places where people can come to, where it feels like they belong, and where it feels like they can be with their community.” To that end, Merchant offers her employees a 30-percent discount on rent, undoubtedly one of the more significant perks that include free lunches of Vietnamese pho and peach-pear-flavored LaCroix to its workers.


Nearly two years ago, the HubHaus CEO moved into a new house, Ground Control, a sprawling 2,400-square-foot ranch-style house in the quiet hills above Silicon Valley, with hardwood floors, marble countertops and lots of natural light thanks to its many windows. On a recent Friday night in July, she and her seven roommates hosted a BBQ outside their house for a few-dozen HubHaus members. Employees snacked along with members who sipped on beers. As Merchant made the rounds, she checked in on Cannon, who was manning the grill, his hands too greasy to shake the hands of guests. When it was time for a group photo, Merchant and Cannon crowded onto the patio with their friends. Everyone milled about waiting for one of the guests to fly his camera-mounted drone into position. Once it buzzed overhead, in just the right spot, they looked up and smiled.

Merchant and Cannon had previously clicked at one of her early BBQs. They started dating, even though they were initially hesitant, given that she was his landlord. A few months into their relationship, Ground Control became available, located just down the road from Tesla’s headquarters. The location was perfect—near both of their respective jobs—even if it was a little premature to move in together.

While Cannon loved living at Casa de Yeezus, he also realized Merchant had brought him into this community in the first place. They looked at the in-law unit at the bottom of the new place in Los Altos Hills. As they toured the place, she cautioned that it would be a big step, but that staying in a HubHaus property was important for her work. This time around, having already experienced the community of HubHaus, he was no longer skeptical. “I was sold,” Cannon says.


13 Sep 23:09

Can’t Stop The Rush? Why Hurry Worry Is Plaguing Team Productivity

by leah@trello.com (Leah Ryder)
20 Aug 23:53

Bun Alert

Since buns range from crepuscular to nocturnal, it's recommended that you enable the scheduled "Do Not Disturb" mode on your phone to avoid being woken by alerts about Night Buns.
20 Aug 23:47

Eclipse Science

I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein's theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.
20 Aug 23:47

Writing About Later, Now: Harder Than It Used to Be

by John Scalzi

I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!


20 Aug 23:44

Earth Orbital Diagram

You shouldn't look directly at a partial eclipse because of the damage that can be caused by improperly aligning the solar-lunar orbital plane with the orbital bones around your eye.